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Purposeless Movements By Robert Softley Gale

August 14, 2019

Becoming a parent for the first time can be nerve-racking for anyone. Knowing it will be twins, the more so. But when your own mother has died in childbirth, the trepidation is intense. “The only birth I’d been at was my own and that all went pretty horrifically wrong,” says Robert Softley Gale. The day after his boys were born, “I was like, ‘Wow! I can do anything!’ That whole reclamation of birth, that it can be OK, felt so important.”

Fatherhood is the latest twist in a heady 18 months for the theatre-maker. At the start of last year, his company Birds of Paradise had its funding cut by Creative Scotland, a decision so bizarre it was hastily overturned. After that low, Softley Gale who has cerebral palsy – a consequence of his traumatic birth – scored one of the big hits of the 2018 Edinburgh festival with My Left/Right Foot – the Musical, a collaboration with National Theatre of Scotland that he wrote and directed.

Then, at the end of the year, Softley Gale split up with his husband (“We get on better now than we did before”) and in June, having met Pauline Cafferkey through a co-parenting website three years ago, he has become the beaming father of two boys. Both Softley Gale and Cafferkey wanted to be parents, neither wanted to go down the surrogacy route, so they opted to bring up the children together. “It’s me as a single guy and Pauline as a single woman getting together and having babies,” he says.

Oh, and this month, he’ll be making his debut at the Edinburgh International festival.

This is characteristic of a man for whom defying the odds is a personality trait. “What are the options?” he says. “You either go out and do the things you want to do or you don’t. My attitude has always been, ‘How do I make this happen?’”

Having overcome obstacles all his life, he is not about to stop now. “What I’ve heard from other parents is they’re all trying to work it out. No one knows what they’re doing, so it doesn’t feel that different to me. Obviously, there are practicalities: I got a new car four weeks before we found out it was twins and if I’d have known at that point, I might have got a bigger car for two car seats, a double pram and a wheelchair. But I’m so used to having to work stuff out that it’s not a big deal.”

He laughs when he remembers being approached by a stranger outside the Theatre Royal, Brighton, where My Left/Right Foot was playing earlier this year. “I must tell you,” they said, “the play in there is really good.”

“I said, ‘Great, thank you, I’ll give it a go.’” Despite it being a show that satirised the appropriation of disabled roles by non-disabled actors, few assumed someone with cerebral palsy might have staged it. That he did – and so well – feels like a step forward. Take the young woman who came up to Softley Gale during the initial run. She had just watched an uproarious comedy but was in tears. “I asked to study drama at school,” she said. “But they told me I couldn’t because I was disabled.”

“There is a real purpose here,” says Softley Gale. “‘Role model’ is a weird phrase, but letting people see that it can be done is very important.”

Now, the experience of fatherhood will feed into Purposeless Movements, a dance-theatre piece in which he turns the involuntary gestures of cerebral palsy into choreography. Revived after a short tour in 2016, it features four men reflecting on how the condition “affects their lives, their gender, their masculinity and their movement”. Because of the contribution of actor Laurence Clark, a self-styled “irresponsible father”, the show had already touched on parenthood, a theme that is likely to develop in this latest run.

“It’s even simple things like holding the babies,” says Softley Gale. “They were born four weeks early so they were pretty small. I thought, ‘With my great clunky hands, how am I going to hold them? Am I going to hurt them?’ But it’s a concern every parent has. For me, the choice was, either I’ll never hold them and they won’t get any bond with me – and what’s the point in that? – or I hold them and there might be a small risk. The way to avoid risk is to never have any contact with anybody. Every relationship is a risk, but we do it anyway.”

• Purposeless Movements is at the Studio, Edinburgh, 19–24 August.

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